Cosmopolitan, February, 1955
John Whitcomb Visits Peggy Lee
Composer, songstress, actress, now she’s the voice of Lady, the pert pup in Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp
Take two powder-blue eyes, a seductive shape, a short platinum-white haircut, and a husky voice designed for candlelight and late hours, and you have Miss Peggy Lee, the lady who helped whip up the songs for Walt Disney’s forthcoming Lady and the Tramp. Miss Lee not only co-authored the score and lyrics, she also sings several of the songs and acts four parts on the soundtrack. By now, you’ve heard “Bella Notte” and “He’s a Tramp” on local jukeboxes and over the air, so you know a Lee number can be a very foot-tapping proposition.
As a genuine show business pro, Peggy has a finger in several important pies. In addition to creating material for herself, she is surefire in the countries plushiest nightclubs. Her record sales are excellent. (In 1947, her version of “Golden Earrings” hit the million mark, which she immediately topped with two million for “Mañana.”) She costarred with Danny Thomas in The Jazz Singer, a movie for Warner Bros.
Not even a platinum bombshell can get away with overwork for long. One day, Peggy sat on a sofa in her California house, a taxi waiting outside, airline tickets to Boston in her purse. The taxi honked, but Peggy couldn’t get up. “There I sat,” she says, “mink coat on, all ready to go. My musicians were on the way. We had fifty thousand dollars worth of nightclub bookings, beginning in Boston. And me, I couldn’t hoist myself off that sofa.” She giggled. “My secretary had left. She had to stop in Chicago to get her fur coat out of storage. Well, when the doctor came, he took one look at me and said I’d had it. Absolute rest, or else, he said. I spent four months just lying in the desert, recharging the old batteries.”
I met Peggy shortly after her return from the desert. She was already at work on Lady and the Tramp. She had moved into an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, glad to be rid of her big house in Bel Air. Peggy objected to the ghost that went with the place. “The doorbell used to ring several times before visitors arrived,” she explained. “The cellar door came down on my sister’s head. One day my manager was sitting along in the living room, and all the cornices fell down.” She looked around the small apartment, at the grand piano flanking a record player and a harp (Peggy can’t play one, but she’s crazy about harps). “See, no cornices,” she said, grinning. At this point, Peggy’s daughter, Nicki Barbour, came in from school. About ten, she looked very studious in tortoise-shell glasses. “Very practical little girl,” her mother said, after Nicki had gone. “Dave Barbour was my first husband. When I married Brad Dexter, Nicki said, ‘Mother, let’s make this one do, so that I won’t get confused.’”
The Peggy Lee story began in Jamestown, North Dakota. Peggy’s real name is Norma Egstrom, and she sang like a lark with every possible glee club, with the church choir and high school band. Everybody said Norma belonged in Hollywood, so she went out there. Assets: eighteen dollars and a battered suitcase. But the trip was a bust. Norma took the suitcase back to North Dakota and got a job singing at station WDAY in Fargo. The station manager changed her name to Peggy Lee, and things began to happen. She chirped at a local hotel and then promoted herself to the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis. Will Osborne heard her there and hired her for his band. Next stop was the Doll House, in Palm Springs, California, where Peggy competed with the clatter of dishes. Unable to rise above the racket, she tried singing under it, and to her surprise a hush developed. People stopped eating to listen to the young blonde delivering songs so quietly and with such feeling.
With her new muted style, Peggy’s career shifted into high. She went into a two-year stretch with Benny Goodman’s band, during which she married the guitarist, Dave Barbour. They began to write songs together, like “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana.” This put Peggy into the big time on records. Now a Decca star, her biggest success for that label has been the Rodgers and Hart ballad “Lover,” rearranged as a wild beguine. With Victor Young, Peggy wrote “Johnny Guitar” and sang it for the movie, which starred Joan Crawford.
Several years ago, Miss Lee’s fame contributed to one of my most embarrassing West Coast moments. I went to lunch with a press agent at the Hollywood-and-Vine Brown Derby, crowded with movie actors. My friend brought an attractive blonde over to our table, garbled an introduction, and rounded up a flashbulb boy to take our picture. All that registered in the hubbub was the word “singer,” so I racked my brain for appropriate small talk. Since the blonde was quite obviously Peggy Lee, I managed to remember the names of two or three of her current records and to say I liked them. The lady looked puzzled, and I didn’t find out why until a week later. The caption on the photograph read: “Miss Doris Day and an admirer.”